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Drought: Farmers dig deeper, water tables drop, competition heats up

A drier 'new normal' is forcing US farmers to dig deeper wells. That affects water tables and municipal supplies, and, if climatologists are right about global warming, it could also mean more competition for less water in the future.

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Currently, the vegetable meccas of California's Central Valley and the grain capitals of the High Plains account for half of all ground water depletion in the United States, according to a 2012 study by the University of Texas. Consequently, within 30 years, "the nation's food supply may be vulnerable to rapid ground water depletion from irrigated agriculture," the study concludes.

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"What's going to be left for us to drink?" inquires Johnny Bartlett, selling Hardy Farms boiled peanuts at a shack in Montezuma, Ga.

History has taught farmers some hard lessons. After the Dust Bowl years, hardier hybrids caught on, and seed manufacturers continue to market new, drought-resistant varieties. Tax and other state incentives have encouraged "conservation tilling," which spares topsoil and saves water by using cover crops to protect the earth and ease evaporation.

For centuries, "dry land" farming has been the norm in the usually verdant and rain-soaked South, and remains so in large parts of the drought-stricken Midwest. But in this current manifestation of short- and long-term drought, irrigation has moved from a supplemental boost that evens out annual yields, making the enterprise more predictable, to a necessary crutch.

"If you believe that food and fiber are integral components of our national defense in terms of adequate supply to the people of this country, then I think the investment in irrigation and conservation efforts is a good thing," says Chuck Ellis, Dooly County's longtime agricultural extension agent.

The need exists beyond the parched South.

Compared with the South's sandy, drier soils – "Believe it or not, we're always about 10 days from a drought," one Georgia farmer says – the loamy earth of the Midwestern Corn Belt is far less susceptible to dry weather, able to hold onto rainfall for much longer.

But given corn's thirsty demands, a record-sized planting tied to attractive $8-per-bushel prices, and hot, dry conditions across the Midwest, the simmering drought is now causing major crop failure, higher feed prices for ranchers, and an onslaught of disaster politics. In Missouri, which the most current US Drought Monitor says is enduring the most extreme drought, Gov. Jay Nixon signed off on $5 million in emergency funds in late July that farmers can apply for to dig new wells to serve parched plots.

Missouri is not the only place where water politics is heating up. In Arkansas, limits on water usage are already cropping up as some chicken farmers are being asked to stop using municipal water systems because public wells and reservoirs can't keep up with demand as the drought wears on.

Even in Alabama, the second-wettest US state, the legislature passed a major tax incentive bill in July to encourage farmers to invest in well drilling, pumps, and irrigators.

Alabama has barely 200,000 acres under irrigation, far fewer than its neighbors Georgia and Mississippi. But despite being blessed with high average rainfall, Alabama farmers, too, are beginning to hedge their bets against a potentially drier future.


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